On the heels of the blaxploitation boom, and just before Roots, came Mandingo, variously derided, vilified and defended in years since. Father-and-son slaveowners Warren and Hammond Maxwell (James Mason and Perry King) preside over Richard Fleischer’s muggy and bewilderingly frank take on antebellum violence and desire. Recently dubbed by Times critic Dave Kehr as both Holocaust film and crime film, Mandingo actually feels like another bizarro 70s dystopia: in archaic dialect, institutional outrages on human chattel are carried on by responsible-acting family men, in a barrage of unflinching double-take distinctions (handwringing romantic Hammond routinely beds slave girls, but gets loosey-goosey shy with his own “white lady”). The incestuous morass is set aflame when Ham’s deprived wife (Susan George, of Straw Dogs) turns her eyes on prizefighting “buck” Mede (heavyweight boxer Ken Norton).
There’s exploitation here, but not on the part of Fleischer, who isn’t leering over scenes of strung-up flogging, no-holds-barred bloodsport or slave auctions. Mandingo hits a ceiling by not delving deeply enough into its black characters, but camp-anticipating chuckles typically subside into productively appalled silence at the Maxwells’ tender pride in business as usual. Maurice Jarre’s Southern-pastiche score almost recalls the rundown-circus
music-boxes of his work for Georges Franju (of Eyes Without a Face).
The source novel by Kyle Onstott anchored a bestselling series (adapted for Broadway with Dennis Hopper as Hammond); Mandingo also made money, scripted by Norman Wexler of Serpico and Saturday Night Fever. Fleischer’s revival of late might not rest safely on this treacherous ground (not with Violent Saturday, 10 Rillington Place, The Spikes Gang around), but if this “trashy” world reeks, it’s for good reason.